Grendel’s Ima

I have been doing some tweaking with my Beowulf unit. In the past, my performance task has been to compile an annotated résumé for Beowulf. It’s good practice for their own résumés; my students have to compile résumés for college applications toward the end of their junior year, the year in which they study Beowulf at my school. It’s also a close-reading exercise, as each item on the résumé must be supported with an annotation. What has bothered me about it is that I want it to include more writing. Sure, it’s a specific kind of writing that I think is important. Suffice it to say something about it was bugging me, so I tweaked it this year. Instead, I will ask my students to write a letter of recommendation for Beowulf. The purpose is still the same: to analyze Beowulf as an epic hero. The assignment just looks different in the end. If you’d like to download this new essay assignment, here it is: Beowulf Letter of Recommendation. You might try this PDF converter if you want to make changes.

When I read Beowulf in high school, I didn’t like it much. Well, I hated it, if the truth be told. I took a sophomore level class in college on British literature up to 1700, and we read Beowulf again. I have no idea why, but this time, I loved it: perhaps a really good teacher, a different time of life, whatever. I have loved it ever since. It’s one of my favorite works to teach, and I enjoy being able to start the year with it. I am completing a unit on Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxons this coming week. My students, for the most part, seem engaged. I won’t fool myself into thinking all of them love it as I do, but certainly they seem interested and are participating. One of the classes I teach began referring to Grendel’s mother as Grendel’s ima. This term makes sense if you know a bit of Hebrew, for it is the Hebrew word for mother. I work at a Jewish high school, and I loved it that my students made this fun connection, so I started using the term, too.

I just collected my students’ interactive notebooks for the first time, too. It was really interesting. The two British literature classes did a good job on the notebooks. I saw real reflection and thinking. I am hoping the notebooks will become a more natural reflecting tool as the year wears on. I really liked a peek at their thinking. The connections they make and the ideas they are putting down in their notebooks are insights into what they see as important. I suppose that’s why I liked the Hebrew connection to a piece of Anglo-Saxon literature.

My department chair has talked me into using the Interactive Notebooks as my professional development exploration/goal this year. It’s new, and it can be something that I can pilot and perhaps present to my colleagues after I’ve tried them this year. My goal is to help students improve critical thinking and make connections. So far, at least based on what I’ve seen in my British literature courses, it’s working. On the other hand, I have some work to do in the other courses I teach. First of all, I don’t think all of my students have buy-in. They’re used to my old notebook checks, and they’re balking at change. Second, it’s new to me, and perhaps because it’s new to me, I haven’t found that balance of support and freedom that my students need. At any rate, I’ll talk about notebooks next week, and now I have some good models to share for students who might need them.

I’d like to be able to tie all this back to my title again, but everything I keep thinking of sounds cutesy and forced, so I’ll cop to it: I really just wanted to title this post “Grendel’s Ima.” L’Shanah Tova.

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Interactive Notebooks

Although I think a system I’ve been using to encourage students to keep good notebooks works really well for me, and might even work well for students, I am not exactly sure what they’re writing down and whether or not they are truly using their notebooks to the greatest capacity. Therefore, I am going to try Interactive Notebooks next year. In case you haven’t heard of Interactive Notebooks, they are a system for taking notes developed by Addison Wesley as part of their History Alive! program. Teachers quickly adapted the resource to other subject areas.

What are they?

Essentially, Interactive Notebooks (INs) are a format for taking notes that encourages organization, making connections, and interaction. The Interactive Notebooks Wiki describes them as a way “to enable students to be creative, independent thinkers and writers.” The beautiful part of the IN to me is that students are encouraged to do assignments as part of the notebook, which will mean I will have fewer smaller assignments. For example, I frequently ask students to do close-reading assignments with questions in small groups. With an IN, the assignment can be part of the notebook. When INs are collected, I can assess the assignment as part of the overall notebook, which should cut down on some of the time I spend grading.

What do they look like?

Greece Central School District, as always, has wonderful resources related to INs, including a picture of what a language arts IN might look like (click to see a larger image):

Interactive Notebook

How do you set them up?

Students should use the right side of the notebook pages for testable material: notes from class and group discussions, reading, video and audio presentations, and lectures; literary terms; vocabulary; and assignments. The left side is for reading responses and journals; graphic organizers; songs, pictures, cartoons, and poems; connected or related ideas; reflections, quotes, perspectives; and mnemonic devices and memory aids. Take a look at the sample page above, and you’ll see it action.

What materials will I need?

Depending on how you want your students to organize their notebooks, you will need different tools. For instance, most teachers discussing INs seem to loathe 3-ring binders. To me, it makes more sense for organizational purposes to have a 3-ring binder as opposed to a spiral-bound notebook or composition book—there would be less need for pasting, for one thing, and it would also lie flatter when closed because 3-ring binders are designed to hold a lot of paper. Here is my list of supplies:

  • 3-ring binder (1-1½ inches)
  • notebook paper
  • highlighters
  • colored pens or pencils
  • subject dividers
  • a glue stick or tape
  • a pencil bag (or students can keep tools in backpack or purse)

The binder, paper, and pencil bag are probably self-explanatory, but highlighters and colored pens/pencils are used to underscore ideas or add color, both of which seem to help students when they are studying. The subject dividers are optional, but if you divide your course into units based on either a textbook or curriculum, you might consider them. The glue stick or tape is for affixing materials into the notebook.

Where can I learn more?

Start with the Interactive Notebooks Wiki, but be sure to check out Greece Central School District’s information, too. I also created this presentation for my own students that you are free to read, download, and adapt for your own purposes (it is licensed under a Creative Commons License).

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